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NerdWallet: Go early, plan ahead, pack light: How to travel in a mad world

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet

As someone who, before 2020, went on multiple domestic and international trips each year with relative ease, I was surprised at how overwhelming it was to get on a plane for the first time in nearly 500 days. Everything felt like an ordeal — packing my bag with a fluctuating weather forecast in mind, figuring out ground transportation from the airport to the city, debating whether or not to bring my vaccine card. While it was exciting to visit friends I hadn’t seen in nearly two years, I came home exhausted.

Whenever you’re ready to dust off your suitcase and get back out there, know that your usual trip routine will need some adjustments. But the extra preparation could spare you a considerable amount of stress.

Nerdy tip: Though travel has resumed for many in the U.S., we’re not yet out of the woods when it comes to COVID-19. Your life at home may have mostly returned to normal, but things are far from business as usual in many cities and countries. If you plan to travel, take appropriate precautions and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance regarding travel safety.

1. Plan ahead. Way, way ahead.

Check your passport expiration date

Odds are your passport hasn’t gotten much use lately, so check its expiration date ASAP if you’re thinking about an overseas trip. Typically, your passport must be valid for at least six months after your departure date for international travel. Due to mail delays, routine service may take up to 18 weeks, while expedited service can take up to 12 weeks. The State Department now recommends submitting your passport application at least six months before planned travel.

Make advanced reservations

For now, you can’t just waltz into many tourist attractions and buy a ticket like you used to. In some cases, you must book in advance online. The National Zoo and National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., for example, require visitors to have a free timed-entry pass to enter. Because of demand, you may not be able to get a spot the day you want one, so start researching these excursions early.

If you plan to drive to the airport and leave your car there, you can also pre-book your parking at some airports, like Chicago O’Hare and San Francisco International Airport. This can save you precious time when airports are more chaotic than usual.

Getting a table at many restaurants is still a challenge because of staffing shortages. Make reservations or build in time for longer waits. I like to check restaurants’ social media accounts because they often announce unexpected closures in those forums.

See: More restaurants tell customers, ‘No vax, no service’ as delta variant spreads

Consider travel insurance

Amanda Hand, content manager for San Jose, California-based G1G Travel Insurance, has worked in the travel insurance industry for seven years, but she didn’t always think about what could go wrong when she vacationed.

“It took one trip for me to change,” she says, recalling a skiing accident that left her unable to comfortably fly home. “I’ve learned the hard way, and, from being inside the industry, I’ve seen everything that can happen, good and bad.”

If you’re planning an especially expensive, once-in-a-lifetime trip, consider purchasing a travel insurance policy that provides appropriate coverage. You may already have some coverage if you used a travel rewards credit card with built-in travel protections to pay for your bookings.

2. Anticipate airport absurdity

Get to the airport early

Even before COVID-19, spending a few hours in an airport didn’t exactly leave you with a spring in your step. It’s harder to navigate now, with growing crowds of travelers who haven’t done the make-it-through-security-and-get-to-the-gate dance in a long time.

Lauren Doyle, president of boutique travel agency The Travel Mechanic, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, suggests you get to the airport at least two to three hours before boarding, even for domestic flights.

See: Airports in the U.S. West dealing with shortage of jet fuel

If you’re hoping to quickly scarf down some food before boarding, dining options are limited at many airports (again, because of staffing shortages). Bring your own food or give yourself more time to hunt down a snack.

Pack light

Doyle notes that a big source of delays at airports comes from checking a bag. At her home airport, Raleigh-Durham International, she observed instances where half of the check-in kiosks were broken and only one airline employee was staffing the bag-drop counter.

If there’s ever been a time to reduce what you bring on a trip, it’s now. Her recommended packing list includes three pairs of shoes (if they’re leather, pick black or brown, but not both), clothing in neutral colors and smaller accessories to dress outfits up. Don’t forget layers like a rain jacket or scarf, if needed.

Travel writer and TV host Rick Steves is such a fan of limiting luggage that tours operated by his company, Rick Steves’ Europe, allow one carry-on bag only per person.

“Packing light is essential for happy travel,” he said in an email. “Think about it: Have you ever met anyone who, after five trips, brags, ‘Every year I pack heavier’?”

3. Be kind

Recognize that we’re all in this together

On a recent trip, Hand came face to face with an irate person at LAX. She got stuck in traffic on the way there and was at risk of missing her flight, and he was blocking the entrance to the express security line an agent was escorting her to. After some stern coaxing, he moved, but not without some salty language.

“Yikes. You don’t have to behave like that,” Hand says. “There are other ways to manage it.”

Don’t miss: Some retirees are already planning their ‘revenge travel’

Everyone at an airport is advocating for their own needs — the need to drop off a loved one, check a bag or get to a gate on time. But you can accomplish your goal without getting in someone else’s way, or worse, treating them rudely.

Adjust your expectations for service

Airports, hotels and restaurants are understaffed right now, and that means longer lines, reduced service and limited capacity. Again, this is a time where advanced planning on your part can help. If there’s, say, a certain restaurant you want to dine in, check to see if it has limited operating hours or if you need a reservation.

Some hotels may place limits on housekeeping, forbidding staff access to a room without the guest’s permission and not allowing a room cleaning to occur while the guest is still in the room. If you want housekeeping, you may have to ask for it.

4. Keep your itinerary light and flexible

Plan a realistic schedule

With so many limitations still in place, you’re less likely to check off every item on your travel wish list. If you’ve been an ambitious traveler in the past, your next few trips will provide an exercise in paring things down. If anything is a must-do, get tickets quickly and arrange your days around those activities. Identify a few backup options that can fill in your day if something else gets canceled.

Embrace the unexpected

On any trip, no matter how well you prepare, things will go wrong. But that’s as much a part of the travel experience as things going right.

“Travel is most exciting and rewarding when it requires you to ad-lib, be spontaneous, and use your imagination to conquer surprise challenges,” Steves said. “I like to make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride — and by doing so, I’ve gained lots of new friends and fond memories along the way.”

5. Make it easier to reacclimate after travel

Prepare your home before you leave

Even if your trip goes according to plan, anticipate coming home bone-tired. Before you leave, take care of some errands so you don’t have to scramble so much when you get back. That can mean doing all your laundry so you can immediately dump the contents of your suitcase into an empty washing machine, or having a meal in the freezer you can pop into the oven. One of my favorite pre-trip rituals is putting clean sheets on my bed the day I leave, so I have a freshly made bed to collapse onto when I return.

Also see: Universal Studios and SeaWorld aren’t following Disney in bringing back mask requirements

Give yourself a buffer

If you have the vacation time to spare, take an additional day off before returning to work. This gives you the chance to fully unpack, restock the fridge and otherwise get yourself ready for your return to real life. Even better, come home on a Thursday so you get a three-day weekend.

Start thinking about what comes next

After so much anticipation during the planning phase, it’s normal to feel the post-vacation blues. Doyle offers a tip for improving your mood: immediately start planning your next trip. “It does mental wonders for you when you have something to look forward to.”

More From NerdWallet

Sara Rathner writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sarakrathner.

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